Rather more years ago than I care to remember, I was on a train in Greece. I was sitting next to an Orthodox priest. As soon as he found out I was English, he picked up a paperback that someone had left on the seat, and insisted on reading passages to me while I corrected his pronunciation. Meanwhile, an old lady sitting facing us would occasionally feed us fruit from the basket on her knee. It is one of the most abiding and most attractive of my memories of Greece.
The book that the priest found on the train was Neither Five Nor Three by Helen MacInnes. It was a book I knew well, I’d finished it myself not long before that trip to Greece. It seemed very appropriate, this was exactly the sort of happenstance that you are likely to encounter in one of Helen MacInnes’s novels. Except there, of course, the whole encounter would be redolent of mystery or threat.
Before I got into science fiction in such a big way, my real passion was for spy fiction. I loved the bleakness of Len Deighton, of course, and the complexity of John Le Carre, but my real favourite was Helen MacInnes. For a long time, during the late-60s and early-70s, I was virtually addicted to her books.
Looking back, I realise that what attracted me to them was that they were invariably set in romantic places that I wanted to visit. In many cases, I still want to visit. This was espionage set not alongside the Berlin Wall or in the grey, oppressive streets of Moscow, but in Venice or the Greek Islands, in Paris or Rome. Places that were only just becoming accessible to the average package holidaymaker, but that retained an air of glamour. And the places were always described with a casual familiarity that made them seem particularly vivid, almost as though I could use the novels as a guide book.
And then my interest switched to science fiction. When I left home my Helen MacInnes collection remained behind.
Wandering round a boot fair on Saturday, I came across a copy of The Double Image by Helen MacInnes. It was, I realised, from the Companion Book Club. My father had belonged to that book club for a while, and much of my early reading was in their distinctive hardbacks. But that was long before they published this volume. Everything that I’d read by Helen MacInnes was in a Fontana paperback, and that included The Double Image, which I know I read though I can remember nothing about it. The stallholder was selling all books for an idiosyncratic 53P, and on impulse, I bought it.
I started reading it after I went to bed last night, this morning I’m already 100 pages in. That is very fast for me. And I’m loving it; I’m remembering all the things that made me devour her books one after the other 40-odd years ago.
The story is quite simple, but made to seem complex because she switches viewpoint frequently. As is virtually always the case, the central character is an amateur who finds himself unwillingly and unwittingly caught up in espionage, but who proves to have quick wits and a steady nerve which makes him a natural to play the espionage game. The central character is, of course, always a man, and there is, of course, a young woman who gets caught up in the adventure because the books are as much romance as they are drama.
The professional spies, from America, Britain and France, are always the good guys, competent and clever. There is always a sense, as in Le Carre, of clever men putting together the pieces of a complicated puzzle. There are recurring characters – Rosie, the main American agent here, was also one of the lead players in The Venetian Affair – but they are never the central characters, but rather the second rank who provide the support network for the hero. The bad guys are Russians or Nazis or, as here, an ex-Nazi who is now a top Russian agent. And the bad guys are bad, they kill people ruthlessly and they are all nervous of the person above them in the pecking order.
It’s simplistic, but it’s well done.
The prose, meanwhile, is clear and straightforward in the realist style of the 1950s (the historical novels of Mary Renault use a similar prose style). Every sentence is complete and well-formed. There are no stylistic tricks, not even one-word ejaculations. If there is the click of a gun, she would never have the one word “click!” break into the action, but rather would have a sentence in which “he heard the click of a gun”. At the same time, while the vocabulary is far from simple, it is never obscure and the prose is never otiose or orotund, those big round words suggestive of too much fat. It is, therefore, always easy to read, though without ever feeling (again the comparison is with Mary Renault) as if you’ve been talked down to or given short rations.
It’s a long time since I read a novel that gave such easy pleasure. I have a feeling I’m going to find myself renewing my acquaintance with all the novels of Helen MacInnes.